“I Would That Ye All Spake With Tongues, But…”

Reformation-rallies do not make much sense, if they only deal with the past. It is rather easy to give an historical account of the Reformation of 1517 and later years; it is possible to praise the Lord for the great things he has done in former centuries; it is even tempting to rise to ecstasy describing the “faith of our fathers.” The problem, however, is whether this faith of our fathers is living still. The question must be asked whether the church of the Reformation is still faithful to that great work of God’s grace. The Reformation itself taught us that the reformed church ought to be continually reforming itself. The real value of a Reformation-rally and of a church service in which the Reformation is commemorated is that it provides the congregation with an opportunity for self-examination.

In submitting ourselves to such a “test-yourself” experience we do well to listen also to what others say about our church. Self-criticism which is not willing to appraise criticism from others, easily loses its sharp bite and thus its painful but healthy and curative effect. Self-criticism in isolation easily becomes a self-congratulatory activity, a means of patting one’s own back.


During the last few years we hear such criticism addressed to us, reformed people, by those who frequent the temples and tabernacles of the Pentecostal movements. These claim to be the fastest growing ecclesiastical bodies of our times, with the possible exception of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who can hardly be regarded as a Christian sect. The critique from the side of the Pentecostals on the older churches is impressive. And this even more so, because it is not completely negative. Pentecostals claim that they are our brothers and sisters; that they originated some 60 years ago, in churches such as ours. They maintain that it was not at all their idea to establish a distinct denomination. Some recent Pentecostal believers in our decade even remain within the churches to which they belong by birth or profession of faith, with the avowed aim of reforming the same.

According to them the official churches are lacking in faith and in the vital expressions of faith. In the older churches the Holy Spirit is no longer at home. It is too formal and too quiet in our services. Talking is done by only one man, usually an ordained minister. Thereby the whole congregation is silenced, with the exception of singing some hymns and reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. There is no life in our worship; the congregation attends church in a purely passive way.

In contrast with this the Pentecostal critique points to the enthusiasm found in their own services. Where the Holy Spirit moves the soul and inspire…the tongue. Even the human body can become instrument of the power of the Spirit. No wonder that their services at times last till midnight, for when the Spirit moves the heart a wrist-watch is utterly senseless.

You have quenched the Spirit, they say (I Thess. 5:19). Why don’t you speak in tongues? You can do it too, if you would make yourself more fully and readily available to the Holy Spirit. Why don’t you? You really should. It will give you such a lift. You lack so much spiritual joy and strength. Why do you stay in your dark vale of tears? Move lip to where we are standing, on this high ridge where one can see the sun and feel its warmth! Thus they claim to have ascended beyond the level of justification; theirs are the heights of sanctification.


Paul wrote to the congregation in Corinth, “I would that you all spake in tongues.” Yet he immediately adds a “but” to his wish. Why? Does Paul have any reasons why he doesn’t want to encourage speaking in tongues freely, but feels compelled to warn against any over-emphasis on this gift without rejecting it completely?

It would be good for anyone who thinks about the gift of tongues, to read very carefully I Corinthians 12, 13 and 14, and take in consideration what God revealed to us about these gifts.



It did happen that people, when baptized in the name of Lord Jesus (or in the name of the Triune God), received a special gift, i.e., the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:6).

This does not mean, however, that people upon baptism always begin to speak in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul writes, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body…” yet in vs. 30 he asks, “Have all the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?”

It is therefore evident that we should not identify baptism with speaking in tongues. There are many more believers than people who speak in a strange language. Perhaps every believer is to some extent “eligible” for speaking in tongues. But this does not mean that you must speak in tongues to be assured that you are a true believer. To speak in tongues may not become the mark of faith. The believer knows that he believes. His assurance roots not in the gift of tongues, but in the blood of the Lamb.

Our first conclusion therefore, is that faith and regeneration are not identical with the gift of speaking in tongues.

God may give to few, or to many; God may give it to the one and deny it to another. This does not really matter. If you can not speak in tongues, you should not become upset about possessing only a meager state of grace. Our salvation rests—subjectively—in faith; not in any of the additional gifts of the Holy Spirit.1

Secondly, Paul who spoke “with tongues more than ye all” (14:18) describes this phenomenon as speaking with God.

It is being overwhelmed by the goodness and love of God in such a way that the tongue starts to speak a new, almost inspired, language. New sounds and new “words” break through; a new harmonious arrangement of vocal harmony, which reflects an almost heavenly happiness.

But this beautiful gift also possesses certain disadvantages. Others cannot understand this language. Therefore the presence of somebody else with the gift of interpretation is most desirable. Apparently many who spoke in tongues were not able to explain later what they had said.

Compared with the gift of prophecy, speaking in tongues does not have the same value in edifying others (14:4). We conclude from this, that speaking in tongues seems to be intimately related to prayer and particularly to thanksgiving.

Therefore—and this in the third place—we are urged to notice that Paul warns the congregation not to exaggerate the value of this gift. He even formulates rather strict rules. If in the congregation there are people who can so speak, not more than two or at the most three may speak in one service and then in orderly fashion (14:27). Women are not allowed to take part in this aspect of public worship, although perhaps there were just as many women who could speak in tongues as men. Nor does Paul limit speaking in tongues to official worship services. It can he done when a believer is alone with God; in the upper room or in the inner chamber of the heart. No one need know about it.

It is quite possible that many readers will now say, “If this is speaking in tongues, then I also have been doing it.” And you are right, for there is no essential difference between speaking in tongues when alone with Cod than when in the community of believers.

Paul even displays a bit of humor. “What would an unbeliever or one who does not know the gospel as yet say if he entered the church and found all people there speaking in tongues? Surely, he would suppose that he had entered the noisy ward of a mental institution!” (14:23)

On the other hand, we see in this verse that Paul was of the opinion that potentially all believers could display this gift.

How carefully Paul formulates his message may be seen from his concluding remark, “Wherefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy and forbid not to speak in tongues” (14:39). This is in complete harmony with verse 5, which reads, “I would that ye all spake in tongues, but rather that ye prophesied,” and with verse 19 where he says about himself, “I would rather speak five words with my understanding,…than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (added emphasis mine, k).


It is surely remarkable that, whereas during much of church history we hear only sporadic and weak references to this specific gift of the Holy Spirit, there is in our age an increasing craving for such speaking in tongues. Why is this the case?

I would suggest that for many people today speaking in tongues is basically an attempt to escape.

First of all people want to escape the world. Our modern world is full of hurry. This causes people to long for an experience in which “time” falls away. Time is money, we are told. And the more our daily experience reinforces this belief, the stronger is the longing to get away from that “money-problem.” Next, modern life is characterized by a strong collectivism. By way of reaction several types of individualism are on the increase, especially in the United States. Speaking in tongues is also a form of individualism. It is speaking mysteries in the spirit; it is being alone with Cod in the spirit. Further more, this is the age of unprecedented scientism. We read about the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley; George Orwell shows us the horrors of 1984. Man wants to escape his growing uneasiness. The bomb and automation are threatening our traditional securities and throwing us into an abyss of fears and anxieties. While this takes place, the world is shrinking, and we live with many more people on this shrinking world than ever before. Who will be able to keep us safe from savage hordes? Such unreasoned and often unreasonable fears drive people to seek a form of escape. And, finally, family-life is crumbling and the old self-contained community is swallowed up by meaningless and vast suburbs where everybody is supposed to do what everybody else is doing.

People want to escape this world and its pressures. Some do this by rioting; others by taking birth control pills. Some try the funnies; others speaking in tongues. Nor should we forget that some people want to escape from the organized church. Bitter are the complaints about the loneliness experienced in the established churches. Religion has become institutionalized. It has become too much a powerful machine in the hands of a few at the summit of the ecclesiastical organization. Elders and deacons in many churches are only names for functions which do not belong to these offices. Frequently these men have long ago lost contact with the congregation. Only the minister is left, but he is compelled to handle the ecclesiastical machinery alone. Therefore he has time only to greet us socially; too busy to sit down for a long talk in the watches of the night.

God has become the God of religion-in-general. He is offered to the masses “in packaged and highly marketable forms” (Martin E. Marty: The New Shape of American Religion, p. 34).

In this process of the erosion of true religion the people of God seek some closer contact with God, the true God. They need the deep warmth of his love, the sovereignty of the Lord God Almighty. Speaking in tongues is apparently one of the ways to experience this.


In this way speaking in tongues is a way out, a solution. It is the way to stand with one foot in heaven, while the other still rests on a cold and hostile world. By means of speaking in tongues the world and the deadness of the church seem to be left behind, at least for a short while. It is all so attractive. It can be very rewarding. However, we may not forget Paul’s warning, his “but.” By speaking in tongues we may lose the opportunity to prophesy, thereby we may fail to meet the real challenge of our times. In getting away from the world, we may be neglecting the lost ones of this world.

In getting the most out of our own spiritual life, we likely are not making the most of our office.2 It is possible that people who practice speaking in tongues are just as materialistic and selfish as the world which they want to escape, only on a different level. Often speaking in tongues causes the trumpet to go out of tune (I Cor. 14:8).

And yet, why don’t we exercise this right? Let us do so when we are alone with God, knowing that “tongues shall cease” (I Cor. 13:8).

1. In a “Pastoral Letter to the Congregations” the Synod. of tho:: Reformed Churches in the Netherlands states (translation, mine): “One ought not to forget the phenomena like speaking: in tongues and enthusiasm are religious phenomena of a rather general nature which also occur outside of the Christian church. For this reason they are not necessarily fruit of the Pneuma (the Holy Spirit ), but can as well be activities of the psyche (the human mind) and can thus be explained from psychical factors.” See also the article of Dr. John Behm sub voce “gloossa” in Kittel, Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament. (Vol. J, page 721 ff.) Attention should also be called to a. good Dutch. Pocketbook on this subject: Kornet, OS. A. G.: De Pmksterbewegrng en de BI/bel, Kok, Kampen, 1963. Other Uterature in Dutch: Clee, Donald: Over de geesteliike gaven, Gorinchem, 1960 and Hegger, H. J. Ik zag Gods heerlijkheid Hoenderloo, 1962.

2. It is remarkable that Pentecostals generally are not too concerned about important Kingdom-causes as Christian educational, cultural and political activity. There are some strong tendencies towards a “cheap” religion characterized, by “just enjoy yourself spiritually; the world and the future don’t matter too much! The story is told that in one Pentecostal group an old avaricious man finally received the gift of speaking in tongues in answer to much prayer by the whole group. An interpreter gave tile following translation: “Brother, God told you to give $500.00 for our new tabernacle.” To this the old man responded: “If this is what I said, then I don’t think the Holy Spirit was speakin’ through me.”